The year 2019 was a very special year for me and not just in the practical filmmaker’s sense. After about forty namely short documentaries, experimental films and experimental documentaries made in the period from 2005 to 2017 in alternative, independent and amateur conditions, my first, so to speak, professionally shot feature film saw the light of day. In the same year two more professional productions I participated in were screened: Summerhouse by Damir Čučić (premiered in 2018, but had a series of screenings in 2019), in which I was an actor and a co-writer, and Extracurricular by Ivan Goran Vitez, in which I had a small part, or more precisely, I was an extra with a task that also included a verbal utterance. These three films have completely different production backgrounds.
Last Days of Summer, the film I wrote, (co)produced and directed, was prepared and filmed with a very small crew of (creative) co-workers and with my personal financial means and the means of my friends and (co)producers that reached about thirty thousand Croatian kuna (approx. 4,000 EUR; including fees). What makes this film officially a professional production, at least from my point of view, is the fact that it was the first time that I had the production support of a legal entity (the art association Zvona i Nari from Ližnjan and also semi-officially Blank from Zagreb) and the first time that I worked with a professional cinematographer (the feature-film debutant Antonio Pozojević) and a professional editor (Damir Čučić). It was also the first time that we received from the Croatian Visual Center (HAVC) a post-production incentive (in the amount of one-hundred thousand kuna, i.e. thirteen thousand two hundred EUR, which I suppose is the lowest post-production incentive ever given by HAVC to a feature film, but even that was precious to us). We did not apply for HAVC’s incentives for project development nor for production (just as I did not apply individually for script development).
As opposed to Last Days of Summer, whose main producers were film debutants, behind Damir Čučić’s SummerhouseOriginal title: Ljetnikovac | Year: 2018 | Running time: 74 | Country of production: Croatia | Directed by: Damir Čučić | Written by: Damir Čučić | Cast: Vojin Perić, Marina Redžepović, Damir Radić, Krunoslav Heidler | Production: Spiritus movens there was the renowned production house Spiritus Movens, the filmmaker applied to HAVC for screenplay, project and production development incentives, and in the end the film was made with the budget for project development (150,000 kuna, nearly 20,000 EUR) because it did not receive the means for production, but it did subsequently receive the incentive for post-production (in the amount of 200,000 kuna, i.e. more than 26,000 EUR). In other words, Last Days of Summer was made as a guerrilla project with a small group of enthusiasts (a team of nine people shot the film) without any experience in making a feature film, and almost half of them had no filmmaking experience whatsoever. On the other hand, Summerhouse is a very low-budget, but not a guerrilla production (at least not when compared to Last Days of Summer), although its crew was also minimal (fourteen members), but it had associates (set designer, costume designer, makeup artist, second camera operator, grip) who would be considered as a great and unnecessary luxury for Last Days of Summer. Moreover, Director Čučić’s main collaborator Boris Poljak is an established director of cinematography and a renowned filmmaker of first-rate experimental documentaries.
Nevertheless, these two films stand on the opposite side of Extracurricular by Ivan Goran VitezOriginal title: Dopunska nastava | Year: 2019 | Running time: 101 | Country of production: Croatia | Directed by: Ivan-Goran Vitez | Written by: Ivan-Goran Vitez | Cast: Milivoj Beader, Željko Königsknecht, Anita Matić Delić, Marko Cindrić, Zlatko Burić | Production: Interfilm |, which represents a whole different world. This film received the production incentive from HAVC in the amount of 3,200,000 kuna (equal to 424,000 EUR), which is (significantly) lower than the price of an average Croatian feature film (about 4.5 million kuna, or 596 thousand EUR), but it is a huge amount compared to Last Days of Summer and Summerhouse. In line with the budget, Vitez’s film was shot in professional conditions that are more or less typical for the Croatian film industry. After all, he had the support of Interfilm, possibly the strongest production house in Croatia. So, three different films made in (completely) different production circumstances, where the production of the first two is still quite similar, while the third belongs to a completely different context, not only in terms of production. The aim of this article is to describe my personal experience of working on these films.
Somewhere in the fall of 2016 Damir Čučić suggested that I act in his second feature film, which later, after the shooting (then we did not know that the filmmaker would decide on an additional shooting because of his dissatisfaction with the structure of two episodes-stories, which made him shoot an additional third one) was given the title Summerhouse. That offer was one of the biggest surprises of my life since it was very hard for me to imagine myself as an actor in the film world – I had no interest whatsoever in this type of involvement and also, I believed that, even if I had been interested in it, I would not have met the basic requirement, i.e. the expressive presence on camera (being photogenic). Moreover, I knew that I was not able to memorize lines in so far as I would not be sufficiently motivated for it since acting simply did not interest me. I said all of this to Damir; however, he insisted that I take the role claiming that he had got the idea to hire me when watching my appearances on Croatian Radiotelevision’s film talk show Posebni dodaci, and that it was exactly what he needed. He managed to persuade me and in the end I accepted the role under the condition that I did not have to learn previously written lines, but that I would rather base it all on improvising.
The shooting of the film took place in the Hotel Trakošćan in November 2017, and prior to that I had had just one acting rehearsal (without camera) in Zagreb on the premises of the Croatian Blind Union with the leading actor Vojin Perić (the President of the Union). In this rehearsal we were supposed to use the improvisation method to find some impressive moments for the film based on previous characterizations (my character was based on Damir Čučić’s person and experiences). The rehearsal was challenging because Čučić and Perić put completely aside the written characterization of my character and pushed me into uncharted waters where I was supposed to get by without almost any support and relying solely on my own experiences and imagination. It turned out much better than I had expected – on this rehearsal we found the motif of the cow from my childhood, part of which I had spent in the countryside (the countryside childhood was what connected Damir and I), a motif that Čučić strangely liked. Also, we came up with and developed the motif of the middle-aged homosexual teacher who seduces my character at the age of thirteen, a character that willingly gives in to him. The teacher did not come from neither my nor the filmmaker’s real life (which is important to point out since the film is partly based on actors’/protagonists’ biographies, i.e. it connects fiction and documentary). However, the teacher was mainly my creation since I determined his psychophysical state and I thought that it would be more effective if the age difference between the two lovers was greater than the one Čučić had imagined, while together we thought of the idea that the older lover had an additional level of authority through his official teaching position. After this rehearsal, Damir concluded that further ones would not be needed and that we should keep it fresh for the shooting itself, which I fully agreed with.
The (real) shooting of the film (with Vojin Perić, Marina Redžepović and myself as actors) lasted for around ten days (as I mentioned, the scenes from the third episode-story with Kruno Heidler were shot later), but I participated only in the last four days because that was all the time I could dedicate to it. Even these four days were enough to experience what Igor Bezinović called the organic gestation of a motion picture when he spoke of his film A Brief Excursion. We were literally isolated in the Hotel Trakošćan, surrounded by snow and ice, and we functioned like a group of friends and good acquaintances gathered on an alternative posh party. Damir Čučić and Boris Poljak, as the two key creative men who also organized the shooting, led the ceremony with a touch of zen – I cannot recall any raised voices or even a hint of nervousness, everything went on strictly according to plan, but in a perfectly calm and relaxed way, almost like in an ethereal atmosphere. All the scenes between Perić and I (Vojin and Marin had done most of their scenes before my arrival) were done without any trouble, including the sensitive story of my character’s relationship with the homosexual teacher. When problems occurred, Damir would immediately stop everything sensing that, if the scene had not been filmed from the first take, we definitely would not have done better in additional takes (which, as I recall, there were not any). While the more psychologically demanding scenes were not a problem for me, quite the contrary, they were challenging; the hardest scene was the one that involved physical acting in a Finnish sauna. I had to step out of the warmth comfort of the hotel, naked with just a towel wrapped around my body, and into the subzero temperatures, then walk into a hot sauna, sit across the heater and endure for quite a few minutes the scorching air, that was not only enveloping my body, to which I managed to get accustomed to, but was hitting me right in the face, which was almost unbearable. Luckily, Damir Čučić proved again to be really kind to actors. He did not ask for more takes so that Vojin and I were spared the utmost exertions.
Every evening, after we had finished shooting for that day, we would gather in one of the rooms and drink wine. The crew, most of whom worked for the first time with Čučić, said that they would work with him and for him again and for free. Indeed, the shooting of Summerhouse was an unusually positive experience and it personally brought me two additional advantages. In my free time, I recorded in the hotel and its surroundings with my own camera the footage for my experimental documentary Winter, screened a couple of months later at the Croatian Film Days, which made me even more resolute to try and make my own feature film, obviously with an independent production and in an organic way.
The film that would much later be titled Last Days of Summer was conceived in the spring of 2016 and it was based on two starting points. One was the scenery – I knew I wanted to shoot it on the property of the Katušić family in Peroj, in the south of Istria near Pula, a modest property around 50 meters from the sea, with a caravan instead of a typical house by the sea, with a wooden outdoor toilet and an improvised outdoor shower. It was an environment that strongly reminded me of the sceneries from the realistic-poetic movement of the American independent film, which I was very fond of. Secondly, I knew that this was the scenery in which I wanted to place a couple of girls tormented by a male predator. The first idea was that these girls would be played by the film critic and filmmaker Višnja Vukašinović and her younger sister Josipa Pentić, an art student. The latter I found fascinating in her role of a nun who is trying to pass the driving test in Višnja’s short film Roza – Theological Road Movie. They were supposed to play their real selves, two sisters, one recently had a baby (which was true about Višnja at the time) and the other was a painter. The idea fell apart because Višnja Vukasinović refused to act in my film so for a while I was considering to offer the role to the underground filmmaker Sunčica Ana Veldić and one of her alternative friends, and to make the film about two friends who become the fixation of a male intruder. I never offered the role directly to Sunčica, who played in her own films, but I was indirectly feeling things out and it made me realize that she was not interested in it. In the end, I concluded that the girls should be a couple going through a crisis and were being observed by a male voyeur, and that I should find them in the streets like with real nonprofessional actors.
That is more or less what happened. In November 2016 I accidentally met Sanja Kordić, a filmmaker of (Internet) mini essays of some kind, and discovered her to be a person keen on creative challenges. After Tanja had accepted to try and play the character of a bisexual girl, I realized that her ideal acting partner would be my good acquaintance who lived in Scotland at the time, another person willing to test out creative possibilities and cross boundaries. My acquaintance enthusiastically accepted my suggestion, but in the end she proved to be the weakest element of the construction and completely out of the blue cancelled her participation just ten days before the shooting.
Around the same time I got Tanja involved, my offer to play the role of the voyeur was accepted by Ivica Gunjača, an actor who has an expressive presence that the camera just loves and that often fascinated me, but who, to my amazement, had never before got a real chance in the film world. Ivica also takes the credit for developing the screenplay because he was advocating that his role, which had originally been envisioned more or less as a mere plot catalyst, had to be more distinctively profiled and that it should eventually become equal to the main female characters. In the meantime, I arranged the production support with the Cultural Production Cooperative Zvona i Nari from Ližnjan, formed by my friends and writers Natalija Grgorinić and Ognjen Rađen. Also, I completed the (almost) final version of the screenplay with about 85 scenes on a little over twenty pages (the talented filmmaker Josip Lukić helped me significantly by suggesting that the main narrative line should keep its dramatic simplicity and that we should minimize the already scarce dialogs), knowing that we would base a feature-length film on it, which nobody in our small crew took seriously, thinking that we could not go a long way with it. While expecting the screenplay to be completed, in the end Damian Nenadić, who was supposed to be the cameraman, cancelled his participation. Knowing his cycles of underground photography, I considered him an excellent choice and he was very interested in the film (prior to that we had worked together on one unfinished documentary project), but he wanted to base his work on a very specific shooting script, which we never got round to.
A month and a half before the shooting began, Damian had been replaced by Antonio Pozojević, a fresh cinematography graduate from the Academy of Dramatic Art, who I knew almost nothing about, but who on set showed the necessary traits to carry out a guerrilla project, such as incredible initiative and flexibility, organizational skills and self-confidence. He also had his own camera of sufficient quality (Sony FS5 with a Super 35 sensor and a 4K resolution which we did not use though, since we stayed within the boundaries of 1080p HD, but it also had an external recorder of a higher recording quality that we used as a director’s monitor).
The best example of how our (pre)production was shaky and scarce is the fact that, before the shooting, we had not had more than 5 acting rehearsals, more or less informal, and we had visited the locations of our choice only once (apart from the said main location on Košutić’s property). Not to mention the fact that we had had two informal auditions for the second main actress in Split the night before we started shooting in Istria, and that I had made the choice (an almost impossible one because they were both great) between the amateur actress Antonija Šitum and the professional actress Nadija Cvitanović to select Antonija (who came not only with a different acting style, but also with a completely different personality, which consequently changed the tone of the protagonists’ relationship) just fifteen hours before we said “Action!”. Even the clapperboard that was used in this film, unlike for Summerhouse, where we used hands instead, arrived by bus at the station in Pula at the dawn of the first day of shooting, along with the boom microphone, and they were all on loan from the Zagreb film association Blank and its President Igor Jelinović, who jumped in as co-producers (informal at first). Along with a significant amount of equipment (including lenses and the said external recorder Atomos), Blank was supposed to lend us a sound engineer, the young Karlo Vorih, for the first couple of days in September (we were shooting from 1st to 15th September 2017), but he could not make it so they sent an even younger replacement, Filip Radulović, with a single experience in shooting a short film. Filip ended up staying with us until the very end as an equal member of a small film family that we managed to become in just two weeks.
I should also mention that a minor part of the crew slept in a caravan on the main set, freezing in the cold and wet September nights (most of the crew slept in our main producers’ apartments in Ližnjan). It goes without saying that in this type of production everybody did everything. My colleague, the film critic Krešimir Košutić, who gave us his property on disposal, was also the First and Second Assistant Director, the Second Assistant Cameraman and the Location Manager. Filip Radulović was not just a sound engineer, but also the First Assistant Cameraman. Antonio Pozojević was not only the Director of Photography and a photographer, he was practically in charge of organizing the shooting of the film. The three of them, together with Ivica Gunjača, were also manual set workers when needed. Antonija Šitum was an actress and a photographer, Natalija Grgorinić was a producer and an extra, Ognjen Rađen was a producer and a prop maker. I was not just the director, screenwriter and producer, I was also the script supervisor, having realized all the complexity and responsibility of this job. Ivica Gunjača and Tanja Kordić suggested and came up with the scene of the first meeting between their characters by the shop, not present in the original screenplay, to which Krešimir Košutić also participated (he suggested taking out a couple of important, but very demanding scenes in terms of performance by the very end of the film, which was risky, but it proved to be the right decision…).
Even though I had enough faith in myself and especially in the people who supported my enthusiasm and enriched it with their own, almost until the very end I was not sure that we would manage to shoot what was necessary for the film to eventually come alive. We began at a very slow pace, but once we got the hang of it, we kept it steady working night and day, which was often very exhausting, especially in rainy weather conditions. We ended up shooting all the crucial scenes two days before the deadline, but this final pace resulted in us being psychologically completely out of the film on the 14th and 15th day of shooting so we only recorded voice-overs (subsequently unused) and shots of nature (subsequently precious).
Shooting Last Days of Summer was the complete opposite of shooting Summerhouse. Instead of the zen atmosphere created by Čučić and Poljak, here the joy of creation and new revealing encounters were accompanied by feelings of nervousness, tension and stress. The reasons behind it were not just in a radical scarcity of production conditions, but also in the fact that some situations and feelings from the script overlapped with reality. Summerhouse was explicitly introduced as a film that combines fiction and documentary, while that is not what Last Days of Summer was, although at the core of our film the documentary part is not any less present that in Čučić’s film.
The man who kept it all together and without whom the production could have easily fallen apart was Antonio Pozojević. He took on himself the role of planning and organizing the shooting and he was wonderful at it. Apart from completely meeting my essential requirements regarding the visual (I was very afraid that, due to the low-budget production, the image would appear electronic or TV-like, which I cannot stand on the silver screen, but with his camera which faithfully imitates a 35, he got what I wanted – an impression of a film, analogical cinematographic texture, and he achieved the right ratio of colour intensity and washout, without any colour artificiality that also concerned me), Antonio showed a real co-directing initiative, which sometimes brought conflicts, but more often than not it was of precious help. In fact, the improvised conditions of the preproduction and the production did not allow us to thoroughly plan every scene, the idea of having a shooting script was quickly dismissed, just as my concept of combining a fixed and a hand-held camera (Antonio concluded that it would be easier and faster to film everything by hand, i.e. that this was a required precondition in order to film all the necessary scenes in a very limited amount of time) so that in the end we came up with the scenes on set, and most of the solutions were Antonio’s. I agreed to it since as a director I had no problems with vanity. Besides, I believe that the main task of the director of a feature film is to choose the settings that in themselves carry an ambiance (especially when the intention is to make a so-called atmospheric film, which Last Days of Summer primarily and predominantly is), of course, to choose the actors whose presence manifests personality, and that the filming itself should be a mutual creation of everyone who shape a concrete frame, first of all the director, the cinematographer and the actors. However, there were scenes I insisted on and argued about with other crew members who did not see the (real) meaning (e.g. the shooting of the dialog between Tanja and Antonija while they were in the sea at sunset, which was subsequently covered with foreground music; nobody liked that but me). There were situations where I had to emphasize all over again that I wanted everyone’s creative cooperation so that it could be our mutual film, but also I had to remind people that the essential filmmaker vision is still mine. Regarding this, significant is the sequence shot of washing and hanging the laundry out to dry that takes over six minutes and that was also not clear to one part of the crew, but I insisted on shooting it. In the end, we tried to perfection it and we somehow managed that from the twelfth attempt. The scene does not appear to be particularly challenging because the choreography of the camera and the actors is not complicated; however, it has very sensitive moments when Ivica enters the shot and Antonija must gaze at him following Tanja’s look, while the camera has to single out Antonija’s face from the pine branch that partly covers it. It therefore requires from the cameraman a lot of focus and sensitivity for fine details, but also physical endurance because the crucial moments in the scene take place when the cameraman has already been holding the camera in his hand for about six minutes.
In any case, I was very far from being the director who had everything under control, which partly came from my total lack of experience in shooting feature films, and mostly from my personality, i.e. from the fact that not only do I lack in so-called leadership skills, I am actually repulsed by them. Just like in the said idea according to which, if we make a collective work of art such as a (feature) film, then this creation should strongly involve everyone participating in it, without any privileged positions. For the same reason, I rejected, contrary to the accustomed and to me personally a much annoying usage, having in the opening credits the line ‘A Damir Radić film’, and I also broke the rule to give the second most important billing, after the director’s, to the producer(s) (even though I was one of them). Instead of that, I gave the most important billing in the closing credits, along with the actors as usual (at the beginning), to the editor, cinematographer, screenwriter and director (at the end) in order to emphasize the artistic instead of the filmmaking and business part of the picture.
After having experienced the making of a very low-budget film (Summerhouse) and guerrilla conditions (Last Days of Summer), at the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019 I got the chance to work in mainstream, on Ivan Goran Vitez’s film Extracurricular. Vitez, the screenwriter and director, offered me a very small role of a member in a depraved pseudo-special tactical team which must eliminate an entire class of prepubescent elementary pupils. Having become interested in acting after Summerhouse (in the meantime I participated in amateur films by Sunčica Ana Veldić and Vedran Šuvar, made at Kinoklub Zagreb), I was keen on taking the offer. Finally, the main reasons why I accepted were the fact that I admired Vitez as a filmmaker (especially his feature debut Forest Creatures, i.e. Šuma summarum) and that a good fee was understood in this type of production. One additional reason was the fact that one part of the filming I participated in took place in an elementary school in Dubrava, at a five-minute drive from my then neighbourhood in Maksimir.
I was hired to purely do a job, but I still wanted to change my only verbal utterance, marked by a paedophiliac overtone, because I thought it could be said differently and in a way that I found more aesthetic and closer to me. But Vitez, who often uses the motif of paedophilia in a directly or indirectly critical way, insisted to keep the line he had written, therefore my attempt at an authorship interference failed. I had no rehearsals for my role (if we do not count the costume fitting, which also occurred in the preproduction of Summerhouse) and there was no need for them. The physical acting was not demanding, but a certain challenge was linked to the previously mentioned line because I needed to say it to two girls and I was afraid that they would confuse the character I was playing with myself as a real person, and this discomfort reappeared with every new take (I think there were three or four). On the other hand, the impression of real acting came from a nonverbal interaction with Anita Matić Delić in the role of the teacher, an actress I admire and with whom I was supposed to do a tense exchange of looks in the mentioned scene with the girls. It was a positive acting experience, in other words, an impression of a real interplay that I did not get from the scene with Zlatan Zuhrić Zuhra as Abid, the leader of our team, in which I hand him an ointment for rheumatism.
In general, the atmosphere on set was what probably befits real professional productions and for our circumstances one with a good budget and a big crew. It was very official, detached and polite. They were all professionals who came to do their jobs and then went home. One of the rare exceptions among the actors I met was the first billed actor Milivoj Beader (playing the father who causes the hostage situation), who was a really warm person. Also, I especially remember the impression of complete isolation that Ivo Gregurević gave (the original janitor with a special tactical unit past, who was replaced after his sudden death by Zlatko Burić Kićo) – he seemed the loneliest man in the world. Ivan Goran Vitez himself, who I had known from before along with Anita Matić, was friendly and kind to everyone, and a very confident director. He appeared to know exactly what he was doing in any given moment, he listened to the co-workers’ suggestions, but in the end it was always his call. He was unquestionably authoritative, although completely unobtrusive. I liked the way he worked, he was focused and relaxed at the same time. In such a production context a director can hardly leave a better impression than he did. When it comes to me, I realized that I would never want to participate creatively in such a highly professional context. If the making of a movie is not organic, with people you are connected to on more than just a work level, in a friendly family atmosphere, from a desire to have a creative adventure that spikes from enthusiasm, then it is not for me.